Among bulletin boards cluttered with postings of the Winthrop Trampoline and the next acapella show, a recent flier has stood out; it depicts only a smiley face and a mailbox under the heading: “Need a Friend? Email FriendHarvard@gmail.com.,”
We met the student behind the project, Jay M. Judge ’22-23, a second-semester senior at the College. Donning a sage green shirt and heavy-framed black glasses, he discussed his experience at Harvard and the inception of his project, sitting soaked in the sun by the large windows of the Smith Campus Center. He spoke quietly and methodically, thinking through each word. His clear mannerisms — he sat straight and looked us in the eye — mirrored the intentionality of his speech.
Judge’s posters have caught many people’s attention. He has received dozens of emails, and he answers each as promptly as he can, usually with a “how are you doing?” Some emails grow into a thread of online conversation, and others develop into in-person meetups.
Judge was surprised to find that most who have emailed him are graduate students. In one of Judge’s meetups, he was told of the often disconnected environments of the graduate schools. “There’s not really much friendship, or community there,” Judge says.
Though Judge hasn’t heard from as many Harvard undergraduates, he knows there are other students who feel isolated from their peers. He says that people have told him, “there’s other people like you; there’s a lot of lonely people on college campuses.” He adds, “I got the idea that if there are other people like me, I could create a way to find them and talk to them.”
In a 2017 survey of 48,000 American college students, 64 percent reported having felt “very lonely” at some point in the past year. The study attributes these findings to the pernicious mindset of comparison; students who have trouble forming connections may look around and feel they are alone in this difficulty.
Judge, too, felt alone in his struggle to adapt to Harvard’s social scene: “In the first couple of weeks, I already felt like I was way behind the average person in regards to making friends,” he says. This contrasted his expectations that meeting new people in college would allow him to expand his horizons; in high school, he spent most of his time focused on academics and throwing hammer for track and field. However, he quickly found that making friends was much more difficult than he anticipated.
“I dealt with loneliness a lot when I was a freshman, sophomore, and junior,” Judge says. He adds, “I isolated myself so much. I just stayed in my room. I was too shy to go out and talk to people.”
Once, in his first year, Judge sought help. He called Room 13, one of Harvard’s peer counseling services. As he recalls, “I vented into the phone, and somebody who was reassuring responded. And I guess that’s helpful. But to me, that kind of feels like talking to a therapist where you can work out your problems, but it’s not so much forming a friendship.”
After freshman year, Judge took three semesters off to focus on his mental health, attributing much of his growth to interacting with others during this time. “What helps me the most is just talking to people,” he says. Now, Judge says he feels much more comfortable in social settings — indeed, he carries himself with confidence during our interview.
Judge says that he would not have been able to start his project without having gone through this period of growth. “I've been more willing to take risks lately, I suppose,” he says.
We ask him to share a piece of advice for his younger self. “Don’t take CS50,” he initially replies, laughing. But, as we near the end of our interview, Judge returns to our question to share a more satisfactory answer. “Being confident is much easier said than done,” he says. “Try to talk to people and ignore your own negative thoughts.”